en-Science, Society and Sustainability - Harry Kroto


On 16 December 2009, Harry Kroto (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996, for the discovery of Carbon 60) gave a general lecture on Science, Society and Sustainability and a mini course on aspects on nano-science, which is a fascinating field of study and one that is of growing importance.

Harry highlighted that the fact that our modern world is so completely and precariously balanced on Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) makes an understanding of these disciplines by all in positions of significant responsibility vital. Although wise decision-making may not be guaranteed by knowledge, common sense suggests that wisdom is not a likely consequence of ignorance. So far SET have truly revolutionized our lives and there is no doubt that the humanitarian contributions have improved the quality of life in the developed world immeasurably. It is worth reflecting on the fact that this improvement was brought about by scientific and technological advances based on doubt and questioning - evidence dependent philosophies totally at variance with the belief-based concepts that underpin all mystical societal attitudes.

Continuing on this theme, he stated that Society has the power to use technology so that it can be of benefit or be detrimental. On the latter score one should note that political decisions have resulted in the existence of some 28,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. In addition it now appears that our technologies may well have also catalyzed a mindless mass-production driven plundering of the Planet's resources. We may be hurtling towards disaster - we may not need an asteroid. For a 50:50 chance of surviving into the next century every segment of society, from industrialists, engineers and scientists to politicians, farmers and fishermen must now recognize that these issues are the most serious that the human race has ever confronted. Our only hope for survival rests on the shoulders of those who take survival and sustainability issues seriously - and do something about it.

Harry commented that the world has changed and has become ever more dangerous as technology advances placing devastating power in the hands of smaller and smaller groups. The power to achieve ends which benefit society is daily becoming less democratic. Perhaps the most powerful agents in the world today are not elected governments but the very big multinational companies. With power comes major responsibilities which is not clear to me that these responsibilities are recognized as important as I think they should be.

Harry is the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University and is the founder of The Vega Science Trust, which was set up to give the scientists who are experts in their fields a broadcasting platform to inform students, teachers and the public directly about scientific matters that are exciting and also are of concern. The Trust has produced 60 programs for TV and the Internet of which 50 have been shown on the BBC2 Learning Zone - most are presently being broadcast streamed from the Vega Website.